Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 6: Chords and Overtones

If less is more, is “lesson” the opposite of “moron”, or is it even more stupid?

More Chords

Forget all about which hand is most artisty — today it’s all about chords.

So far, we’ve covered most of the “simple” chords. Here are the ones that are left:

o   oo     o o oo     o oooo
======     ======     ======
|||1||     |||1||     ||||||
------     ------     ------
|23|||     |2||||     |2||||
------     ------     ------
||||||     ||||||     ||||||
------     ------     ------
  E          E7         Em7    

  ooo      x   0      x    o
======     ======     ======
|||||1     ||1|||     ||||1|
------     ------     ------
|2||||     |2|3|4     ||2|||
------     ------     ------
3|||||     ||||||     |3|4||
------     ------     ------
  G7         B7         C7        

x o        x o        x o
======     ======     ======
|||||1     ||||11     ||||1|
------     ------     ------
|||2||     |||2||     |||2|3
------     ------     ------
||||3|     ||||||     ||||||
------     ------     ------
  Dm         Dm7        D7

With these chords under your belt, plus the ones we’ve already covered, you should be able to play a large amount of the songs you will find on dylanchords or any other chordsite. The exceptions are songs with barre chords and songs with chords with long and complicated names, which will the topics of later lessons.

For now, just a few remarks on the most common chords.

  • G7: Note the similarity between G7 and C: the pattern is the same, only with the chord “spread out” on all six strings. Take advantage of this wen you play these chords and keep the movement as simple as possible.
  • E is the quintessential blues chord. Most of John Lee Hooker’s songs and a good share of the blues songs you will hear in pub bands are in this key. Its companion chords are A and B7. With those three chords, you can pick more or less any blues song and play it, and that is the first assignment today: pick any blues song and play it.
  • B7 is one of those four-finger chords, which may seem difficult to get in place all at the same time. It should work as a block of fingers, as I’ve talked about before — not as four separate fingers. This could be trained in the usual way: play E – B7 – E – B7 for two minutes, and chances are that you will come out with a fairly automatized B7. Again: the long finger is in the same place in the two chords. Use that as a stabilizing element.
    It is possible to cheat with B7 and play it x21200 instead, which — if you come from E — is just a matter of switching strings for the index and ring fingers. The “wrong” tone you will be playing is the high e’, and since you will most likely play B7 only in songs in E major, that is either completely wrong — if the “point” of the song is maximum contrast between the two — or completely ok. You decide — it’s your ears.
    In the more advanced direction, it is also possible to get a finger at the second fret of the sixth string as well, somehow: 221202. This would either be a half-barre with the longfinger, covering both the fifth and the sixth strings, or a thumb coming up from behind to the sixth string. I will come back to both these solutions later. For now, you’re probably better off cheating (I do that, most of the time…).
  • Dm is one of those spread-out chords, which may give some problems until you get used to stretching out your hand.
  • C: The common C major chord can be played in four different ways:
               x  o o
       o o     x  o        x o
    ======     ======     ======
    ||||1|     ||||1|     ||||1|
    ------     ------     ------
    ||2|||     ||2|||     ||2|||
    ------     ------     ------
    34||||     |3|||4     3||||4      
           variants of C

    The shape at the top is the one we have used so far. It is the easiest one, at least insofar as it only uses three fingers, but I recommend learning the other three as well.
    The first (332010) is my everyday C. It has two great advantages: (1) it makes the sixth string less obtrusive, so you can actually play the chord with the full six strings; and (2) it works perfectly together with the version of G major with long, ring and little fingers that I recommended back in lesson 3: the ring finger is already in place (“already in place” is a thing to look for, especially when it’s the ring finger, the least mobile of the fingers), the long finger is almost there, and it’s a relatively small matter to slip the little finger down to the first string.
    Apropos — in the version in the middle (x32013) the little finger is already in place on the first string, and all you need to do to get to G is slip the little and ring fingers up to the fifth and sixth strings and let go of the index finger. The little finger on the first string gives this chord shape a very distinct sound: one high tone is ringing way above the next one. This makes it a nice variant, but it can also be too much sometimes. Use it with care.
    The last variant is a special chord, to be used in one specific context:

      ooo       x o         ooo
    ======     ======     ======
    ||||||     ||||1|     ||||||
    ------     ------     ------
    |2|||| ->  ||2||| ->  |2||||
    ------     ------     ------
    3||||4     3||||4     3||||4  
      G          C/g        G

    Here, two fingers are “already in place”, and slipping the long finger one string down and adding the index finger is easy enough. This is one of the cases where you are supposed to touch a neighbouring string: the fifth string should not sound, and muting it is the job of the ring finger. It happens almost automatically.
    The “C character” of the C major chord suffers here, since the bass tone is G and the fifth string should not be sounding. It is, in other words, a variant chord to G almost as much as a proper C chord.

  • G: I’ve said it before, but for the sake of completeness: try to learn to play G with the “bad” fingers — you will not regret it.

Overtones and sound quality

A few more words about the E major chord:

E is the biggest, fattest chord in the book. Since E is the tone of the deepest string, it follows that E is the deepest sounding chord you can play in standard tuning. But that’s not the only reason; there are things about the way the chord is constructed which emphasise this grandness.

Try this: Play the open 6th string. Then place your finger over the twelfth fret (and when I say “over” I mean that literally: directly over the metal band and not “in the box” where you will usually place your fingers), and touch the string lightly but without pressing down on the string. Then strike the string again. You should hear the same tone as the open string, only an octave higher, and with a somewhat flute-like sound (at least that’s what those people thought it sounded like who called this kind of tones “flageolets”, which means “little flutes”).

Do the same thing again, this time touching the string over the seventh fret, then over the fifth fret. The fifth-fret tone should be the same tone again, another octave higher. This should be the same tone as the open first string. The seventh-fret tone, on the other hand, is not an e, but a b, which should sound the same as the open second string.

What you have just played, are the first three overtones or harmonics of the tone E. When you strike a string, you are setting the string in vibration. But it’s not just the whole string that is vibrating. The two halves of the string are also vibrating, independently of what’s happening with the full string. So are the three thirds of the string, etc.

The parts of a string that are vibrating at the same time

The divisions which produce the overtones (from wikipedia).

What you are doing when you touch the string at the twelfth fret, is partly to stop the full vibration of the string, partly to emphasise the vibrations of the two halves of the string. The twelfth fret is the exact middle of the string, corresponding to the point marked “1/2” in the image to the right.

Similarly, the seventh fret marks one third of the string (“1/3” in the figure), and the fifth fret one fourth, etc. There are similar points at the fourth fret, near the third fret, etc. In principle, the series does not end, but it is difficult to isolate the higher overtones in practice.

They are there, however, and they are heard. The combination of overtones — which ones are more and which less loud — is one of the most important factors that determine how an instrument sounds. A violin has a different distribution of overtones than a guitar, and that’s why we can hear the difference between them. (The other main elements are the attack — how the tone starts — and the sustain — how it ends. If one cuts off the attack, it can be surprisingly difficult to recognize an instrument sound.)

But even one and the same instrument can have different sounds. If you strike a string close to the bridge, it sounds much sharper than if you strike it closer to the sound hole: you are in fact emphasising the higher overtones, whereas closer to the sound hole, you’re giving more punch to the lower ones, which gives a darker, mellower sound.

We can now go back to the E major chord, and summarize what we know: when we strike the deepest string, we also hear — among the overtones of that tone — three tones that are also part of the full chord, on different strings: the fourth, second and first strings are identical to the first, second and third overtones, respectively. The tone on the fifth string (B) does not correspond directly to any of the overtones, but it is at least the same tone as the second string, an octave lower, and will feel very much at home in the chord.

In other words: most of the tones in the E major chord are there already in the deepest-sounding tone. The rest of the strings reinforce the basic sound. Hence the full, rich sound of the chord as a whole.

The third

That leaves one string: the third. The tone of the third string is g# (g sharp), which is the third of the E major chord — the tone which decides if the chord is major or minor. Its position right in the middle of the chord is ideal: it does not draw too much attention to itself (as may be the case with D major, where the third (f#) is played on the first string), nor does it blur the chord (as may be the case if the third is placed closer to the bass).

The third is the unruly pubescent teenager in the family of chords: it certainly has character, and the chord would be a whole less interesting without it, but somehow, it is always either too big or too small.

This is not just metaphorically speaking: it is too big or too small. Or put differently: a third on the guitar will always be out of tune. This has to do with properties of the tonal system, which it will take to long to give the details about, but to make it brief: the fourth overtone (the one on the fourth fret) is two octaves and a third above the tone of the open string. This tone or one equal to it will sound in tune with the fundamental tone. The problem is that this tone can not be produced in a system which is based on a division of the octave into twelve equal (or rather: proportionally equidistant) tones, which is how the guitar is constructed, with twelve equal frets on an octave. This is also how modern pianos are tuned. The benefit of this system — which Johann Sebastian Bach demonstrated with his Well-Tempered Klavier — is that one can play equally well in any possible key. The cost is that every interval except the octave is slightly out of tune. With some intervals, it is hardly noticeable, but with the third, the difference between the pure and the tempered version is considerable.

You can test this by playing the fourth fret flageolet on the sixth string and comparing it with the tone on the fourth fret of the first string (g sharp). If the two strings are perfectly in tune, you should be able to hear the difference between the two tones clearly: the pure third, on the sixth string, is consideably smaller than the one you play on the first string.

This is yet another reason why the third in a chord should be treated with caution — just like with a teenager. In the middle, surrounded by caring and loving octaves and fifths — as it is in E major — it blends in more easily, but if it is allowed to ring all by itself on the top (as in D major), it can be jarring at worst (and interesting at best…).


My plan was to say something more about the blues today, but on second thought, I think I will leave it to the lesson on licks and riffs — after all, that’s mainly what the blues is all about.

All the Lessons

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11 thoughts on “Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 6: Chords and Overtones

    1. I should probably have deleted this pingback as spam, but I just couldn’t bring myself to it. As an expert in the fine art of procrastination (and an experienced user of the guitar as a perfect means towards said goal), I’m all for guilt-free play. :)

  1. @giuseppe

    This is wrong in many ways. First, a good-quality mp3 (>= 128k) isn’t “poor”, you can’t hear a difference compared to a CD (provided the volume and quality of A/D converters is the same, and you heave healthy (!) ears). Second, mp3 doesn’t cut off overtones. It really analyzes the signal spectrum, und cut’s away thing’s the human ear is not able to hear anyway from the signals spectrum. Think of an orchestra, timpani and triangle playing the same note (say, very loud). Do you think you are able to hear the later?

  2. @Tobias: I have to disagree here. An mp3 at 128k is definitely audibly poorer than a lossless file. I happened to do a series of ABX tests only yesterday, and I was astonished to see how “well” I did on the tests.

    An ABX test is a test where two sound clips (“A” and “B”) with different versions of the same track are played first, and then another clip (“X”), randomly chosen from either of the two former, is played. One then guesses which of the two it is. This is repeated for as long as one wishes.

    I had chosen a flac file (lossless, cd quality), and 128k and 320k mp3 versions of the same file. There was no problem at all distinguishing the 128k version from any of the others. I made one mistake in ten, and that was because the auto-generated series began with five As in a row, and I thought: there must be a B in here somewhere.

    What surprised me — having been generally sceptical towards the whole “ooh, the sound quality is soooo poor in mp3s” hysteria — was how marked the difference was also between 320k and flac. Nothing that will ruin my experience and enjoyment of the music, certainly, but noticeable nonetheless.

    On the other point: yes, mp3 conversion does cut off the high frequencies. See, e.g. this post with a table that shows the various cuts. You’re right that it mostly discards things that are not within what the human ear can hear, but it’s not only that.

    So, guiseppe (and my apologies for not having answered until now): yes and no. Something is lost, but the difference you hear, is mostly not caused by missing overtones.

    It should perhaps also be mentioned that the main reason for bad sound on ipods and other places where mp3s are used, is caused by the sound system: bad earphones, bad soundcards in computers, listening in loud places, etc. No bitrate can fix that…

  3. I can’t help but weigh in here even though it is slightly off subject. IMHO 128K MP3’s just sound bad. The sounds of instruments are a subtle thing. Much of what we hear in guitar or drum sounds or even in a piano isn’t just the pitch and timbre but also a host of transient sounds which contribute to the overall tone. Cymbal sounds are a good example. Often when the stick hits a cymbal there is an initial very high frequency spike then the actually ringing of the cymbal is lower pitched than the attack. If the attack “ping” is higher pitched than 14-15k hertz (most folks can hear to around 20k) an MP3 will cut this frequency out but when the pitch drops below the cut off point for the MP3 codec then the cymbal rings out. the overall effect can be a cymbal sound which in a lossless codec sounds crisp with clear rhythmic information but in MP3 sounds a bit like an even hissy wash with out clear attacks. This represents a loss in the musicallity of the recording and while this may be a subtle difference to some, those who are sensitive to it really notice it.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. Good example, and one which illustrates one point that I couldn’t think of a way to exemplify: cases where the loss of that we cannot hear matters musically anyway: since music is an art form which takes place in time, it matters where on the timeline events take place.

    The most common defence line of good-quality lossy formats, which I to some extent endorse, is that just because one can hear the difference between, say, a 320k mp3 and a flac file, it may not matter musically. Some even have argued that there are cases where the loss of spatial precision may actually be preferrable. This post argues that:

    someone heavily involved in the music may benefit from decoupling their ears from the forced locality of an ultra linear source and it may feel more like a live acoustic recording they have experienced where there was a lack of this precise spatial locality. […] For artificially created sound-spaces, if it is a requirement that everything stay perfectly still, FLAC is good, otherwise MP3 can give the fake environment a touch of uncertainty which many ears will find more pleasing.

    While I have no idea if this is correct or not, it certainly is an interesting idea.

    One more thing, which I forgot to say in my previous post: the outcome of the ABX test was a surprise for me for two main reasons: one: I’ve always been suspicious towards people claiming there is such a big difference between lossy and lossless, and two: I’m half deaf on one ear (strangely, that’s always the ear that is turned towards my wife when she yells at me to turn down the music or something like that) and way past 40 so there are loads of sounds I will never hear again (Beethoven, here I come!). And still, I could hear the difference. Amazing.

  5. I love it how you keep on dissing on D major chord :)
    …too much attention to itself (as may be the case with D major)

    Great lessons, thank you :)

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